Daniel Hamer, Master
S.S. Norwich City
Photo courtesy Janet
The vessel stranded
on Gardner Island, Phoenix Group, shortly after 11 p.m. 29th November
I was on the bridge when
the vessel struck what turned out to be the reef of a coral island, but one
can well imagine the momentary consternation of those who were in their bunks
on receiving orders to don lifejackets and prepare lifeboats. On deck nothing
could be seen, the darkness was intense and it was raining heavily. Strong
westerly wind and high seas were striking the ship and she was pounding heavily
on the reef so that men coming along the deck were thrown in all directions.
Lifeboats were provisioned
and got ready for launching while the officers and myself sounded around
the vessel to ascertain her exact position. Having concluded that it was
hopeless to attempt letting her off during the night, I decided to wait
Everyone by this time
was reassured as to immediate danger but there was still the possibility of
the ship breaking in two. All hands were ordered to remain aft the funnel
in order to be handy for the lifeboats should this happen.
Shortly after 4 a.m.
smoke was seen issuing from the engine room and in less time than it takes
to tell the engine room, stokeholds and number three hold burst into flames.
Fanned by the strong wind it wasn’t long before the vessel presented an
alarming spectacle. Minor explosions were occurring at frequent intervals
while the crew were engaged getting out lifeboats and lowering them to
the rail. As dawn was not far off it was hoped that we could remain until
then, but the situation developed too quickly and she was left about 5.15
My part in the proceedings
ended about 4.30 a.m. After seeing the starboard lifeboat safely lowered to
the rail, the Chief Officer and I crossed over to attend to the port boat. This
being the weather and outside boat, was only to be used in case of necessity.
The boat was swung out and before lowering I heard water running over the
side. Not wanting the boat filled I approached the side to ascertain the
cause when the vessel was struck by a heavy sea and shaken violently. The
Chief Officer luckily was thrown inboard but I hit the water some 40 ft
below, just missing a grip on the boat deck in passing. I was swept out
clear of the ship about 50 yards by the backwash from the seas. I called
out for someone to lower a rope over the side. They heard me twice and then
lost sight of me and gave me up for lost. I was trying to swim back to the
ship but was being taken by the current past the bow and was at one time
about 150 yards from where I fell and about 50 yards from the surf.
I was getting
fatigued by this time so decided to lie on on my back. Next thing I knew I
was near the surf. I tried to get away but I was swept in with the rollers
and after what appeared hours landed on the reef or ledge of the island as
it turned out to be. Dawn was now breaking and I could see the island about
200 yards away, so I made for it, very thankful to find the water no more
than waist high up to the beach.
The Norwich City in happier days.
Photo courtesy Janet Powell.
Looking back over the
event I am glad I did not reach the rope hanging over the side of the ship.
I should have been smashed against the ship’s side with the next sea that
came along. Maybe if I had given a thought to sharks, things may not have
turned out so happily for me; as it was I was very thankful to be ashore.
The most regrettable incident
was to follow. When the lifeboat with all hands was leaving the ship it was
drawn up into the tremendous surf and capsized throwing most of the crew into
the sea, eleven of them losing their lives. Four were imprisoned under the boat,
one of them was found drowned when the bottom was cut out of the boat. The
other three had managed to keep their heads above until help came.
Most of the survivors
in their efforts to reach safety had discarded as much of their clothing as
possible, some were without boots, some without clothes and most of them
were cut about the body by the sharp coral and rocks. All were in a very
dejected state but thankful to have reached safety.
The steward, poor chap,
was the most unfortunate of all. He had practically reached safety when
he collapsed and was drowned before anyone could give him assistance.
He was brought up on the beach, artificial respiration was tried for about
an hour without avail, and we were all reluctant to give up. He was a
very popular fellow and everyone expressed their sympathy for his relatives
in their sad bereavement. Later we all paid him our last respects, gave
him a Christian burial and placed a cross of coral at his head.
Both lifeboats and most
of the equipment were washed ashore so all who were able gathered these together
and placed them well clear of the tide. This done we all sought the shelter
of the trees and laid down to rest.
The beach was very exposed
so a camp site was selected some 100 yards into the woods, all hands assisting
in carrying provisions etc. Fortunately all those who reached safety
were uninjured so we were unhampered in that respect. The boats’ sails were
used to make a tent to keep out the rain but when they became saturated
rain began to come through making life fairly miserable.
The second mate and
several others now went exploring the island. They returned some time later
having found a small lake of fresh water. The three firemen returned with
some cocoanuts . More than half of the survivors were without boots so
had to remain in camp.
About noon on Saturday
the first ration was issued, which consisted of one biscuit covered with corned
beef and half a tin of milk and water. A similar issue was given to each
man about sunset.
During the afternoon,
after several attempts a fire was made which cheered us considerable enabling
us to dry our clothes. The rain had ceased but several showers occurred
during the night.
Short of seeing our
homes, the next dawn was the most cheerful sight on earth. The night seemed
endless with no means of knowing the time, the sky being overcast. Trying
to sleep on the hardest of soft planks is bad enough, but it's a feather
bed compared to coral. In addition to this discomfort huge land crabs
and rats were entering the camp. Those on the outside got very little
sleep, in fact one was only too pleased to remain awake keeping the fire
burning. People at home and in Australia go camping for pleasure, but
rest assured the survivors of the Norwich City have had all the
camping they require for the rest of their lives.
The dawn came with the
promise of fine weather and shortly afterwards each man was given a dipper
of water and the camp was reorganised. A more suitable site was selected
and parties told off for various jobs. One party under the Second Officer
was told off to obtain water, another for cocoanuts and the remainder
to build a shelter. The lifeboat axes came in very useful for this. Small
trees were cut down, trimmed and lashed between four large trees in the
form of a square. A trellis of smaller trees and branches was formed on
top and over this the two sails were spread. Around three sides a barricade
was made to keep out the crabs, leaving the lee side open for the fire,
which was soon got under way. The ground was cleared of twigs etc., and
then covered with leaves over which was placed a couple of blankets and
old canvas which had been washed ashore. Altogether it looked and was
The waterparty had returned
by this time and we all had an issue. It didn’t taste good to me so all
water from that source was boiled before use, there being sufficient water
in hand to use while the other was cooling. Later the other party returned
with several cocoanuts, so we decided to have lunch. Biscuits, one in
number covered with meat, and half a tin of milk. We used twelve tins
of water to two of milk; for dessert we had cocoanut. This was about 11
a.m. The next sumptuous repast was taken at sunset and everyone settled
down for the night.
This back to nature
business didn’t suit some of us at all, the night being too long and
we had too much to think about; others, I think would have slept pegged out
on a clothes line.
Monday dawned after
another endless night and when it became light enough we all made for the
beach, hoping we should see a ship coming to our assistance, but nothing was
in sight. After attending to our toilet we returned to camp and each received
one dipper of water. The water supply at the lake was found to be evaporating
rapidly in the heat of the sun so as much as possible was obtained and
stored in a couple of tanks taken from the lifeboats. Our water supply
I daresay would have lasted about three weeks at the present rate, longer
if necessary. We were all confident that we would receive help before
our supplies ran out.
Our operator was at
his post almost immediately we struck the reef and it was three hours before
he got through to Apia and we were lucky to get an answer at all as the
noise from static was terrific. He remained at his post until the end
sending out the final message that the vessel was on fire before leaving
and taking up his boat station, so we expected to see some ship that afternoon
or next day. You may depend some of us were always on the beach that day.
The first day we anxiously
awaited King Sol, but now we were getting a little more than we wanted of
him and with the scanty clothing some had on, they were getting very sunburnt
and the heat was extremely painful.
After attending to the
requirements of squaring up the camp, the rest of the day was passed in roaming
at will, although those with boots were the only ones able to exercise.
The island seemed to
be an extinct volcano, the crater being filled with salt water each high
tide from two very shallow inlets. I daresay the area would be about three
square miles, the centre fathoms deep and some of the prettiest shades
of green imaginable, but like most good things had its drawbacks. Sharks!
Not large ones but about 2 ft in length and without exaggeration hundreds.
However, one would be sufficient to quench any desire I had for bathing.
In the sunlight the lagoon looked magnificent. Situated as we were we
had time to admire it.
The time for evening
rations arrived and from then on into the night the sole topic was the possibility
of our being rescued on the morrow.
The Norwich City in 1937.
Photo courtesy Eric Bevington.
Monday night, the last night
we fondly hoped to be on the Island passed at last. Just before the dawn the
mate was awakened by the playful nip from a big crab. He was the handiest to
the barrier and he nearly jumped out of his clothes. This awoke most of us
and we were contented from then on to wait for the dawn. As soon as it was
light enough we had a dipper of water and all made tracks for the beach, confident
that a ship would be in sight. Imagine our disappointment on seeing an empty
sea. It was a very quiet party that returned to camp about an hour later to
receive their milk and biscuit. Afterwards several parties set out for the
other side of the Island and on their way sighted two steamers coming round
to our side. It wasn’t very long before those in camp knew the good news and
all were on the beach in no time, sore feet and coral forgotten. To see those
two vessels approaching, one from the north and the other from the south was
the finest sight I have ever seen.
Our excitement died
down after a while, our thoughts having turned to those buried on the
beach. All expressed their profound regret at having to leave them behind
and tendered their sincere sympathy for those they have at home. Such
is a Sailor’s life!
The vessels were the
S.S. Trongate of London and the M.V. Lincoln Ellsworth of Oslo.
The Trongate had been sent to our rescue by Administrator Allen of
Apia; the Lincoln Ellsworth was bound from San Francisco to Sydney,
loaded with bensoine. Both had slowed down during the night and made the
Island by daylight arriving on the east side, meeting then turning round
and arriving at the scene of the wreck about the same time; this would
be about 8 a.m.
The Lincoln Ellsworth
was seen lowering her motor boat, the Trongate lowering a boat
from her after deck, which when manned made for the breakers. We on shore
knowing the danger tried to warn them not to try landing there but to
seek a more favourable place. The boat was handled with superb skill,
coming through the surf about 200 yards south of the wreck. They landed
on the shelf which extended about 200 yards from the beach, there being
about 3 ft of water on it at high tide, and must be sheer cliff, there
being 60 fathoms of water within 20 yards of the breakers. Several of
us went out to meet the boat in which was a crew of six Ellice Island
natives whom Administrator Allen, with wonderful foresight had recruited
and sent to our assistance. These men were of splendid physique and the
way they handled their small surf boat through the surf was worth seeing
and gave us hope that we should all get safely off the Island. We assisted
in getting the boat to the beach, took the water and provisions which
Capt. Swindell of the Trongate had thoughtfully provided and made
for camp, where I assure you they were made full use of. The Natives chief
concern was whether there were any crabs on the Island. They were highly
delighted when we told them how big and numerous they were. In fact they
didn’t wait to hear anymore but set out right away in search of them.
It appears that those crabs are a delicacy in Apia. It would have taken
some coaxing for me to dine off one.
The two vessels now
cruised along the reef in search of a suitable place, the surf near the wreck
being far too dangerous. A place was found about 1 1/2 miles south of the
wreck, the breakers being not quite so bad, but bad enough to make it anything
but a joy ride to get over.
Before leaving camp
all provisions etc., were placed in the shelter, but I sincerely hope that
no-one will ever be so unfortunate as to need them.
We then crossed the
lagoon in the boat to where the vessels were waiting on the outside and transported
the boat to edge of the reef. It was now about 2 p.m. I was not too optimistic
as the breakers were increasing in size owing to the rising tide. However,
it was decided to make an attempt.